A Neo-Marxist Perspective on CRPGs?

Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values? Is there nothing else for us but looting, slaying anything that isn’t “one of us,” and romanticizing that bloody climb up the social and corporate ladder?

I know I’m probably driving some of you guys and gals batty with all of this academic stuff, but the truth is, I’ve so immersed in it these days (I am a prof, after all) that it’s about all I have time to think about. Fortunately, most of the theoretical stuff I teach (or, at least, attempt to teach) to students is nicely applicable to videogames.


This week, we’ve been exploring the “Neo-Marxist” perspective, which isn’t to be confused with Soviet-style communism. Nor do I consider myself a Neo-Marxist (though I do think it’s useful to think about how our economy shapes our beliefs and everyday lives). Instead, we’re just exploring how material conditions and economic practices shape our “dominant ideology” about who ought to be empowered. Ideology is a bit of a slippery concept–different critics will use it differently–but for the book we’re reading (Sellnow), it’s more or less what we consider to be common sense, and determines who we consider to be with us in the “us and them” dichotomy. Whoever is “disempowered” in your ideology gets “Othered,” or placed in the “them” category and disadvantaged somehow–probably given worse jobs, lower income, or subjected to a glass ceiling. The key to this concept is understanding that we’re all subsumed in an ideology–there’s no outside perspective you can reach where you can view things Objectively. Instead, all of our values, laws, norms, beliefs, popular culture works–the whole thing–is shaped by this largely unconscious (we might think of it as a cultural unconscious) aspect of our being.

I take a cruder view of all this: The people with the most material wealth (money, property, influence, etc.) determine, intentionally or not, what the rest of us think is “common sense.” If you take a contrary position–say, you think the rich should be more heavily taxed–you may be Othered, and subjected to discrimination, fewer promotional opportunities, denied a job at all, viewed as a simpleton, etc. Folks more heavily indoctrinated will make typical arguments, such as “The rich people provide jobs for the rest of us,” and so on, eventually ostracizing you if you keep it up. Keep in mind that it’s not necessary for the rich themselves to fight you–they can rely on the, for lack of a better word, brainwashed masses to keep you in check.

Most Neo-Marxists would, I think, also argue the rich themselves are brainwashed, buying their own hype, as it were, and convincing themselves they deserve their wealth and privileges and you don’t. The ideology also does a good job shielding “obvious” misconduct in various ways–for instance, pushing old racist or sexist practices deep underground, so they’re much harder to detect and thus criticize. Indeed, the whole concept of the corporation is a good example of how these elites manage to shift a great deal of their personal responsibility for the messes we find ourselves in onto an abstract concept. Plus, the mass media is quick to celebrate and deeply associate the very rich with a deeply generous spirit, emphasizing over and over again how much they donate to charity or how they possess some unique form of intelligence or spirit that made them worthy of all that fortune.

Meanwhile, if you get too riled up about the perceived unfairness of making a pittance while someone else makes ten times your salary, you’re simply told that the disparity is your fault–you didn’t study hard enough, work enough, you’re not applying yourself, etc. And besides–would you really want to “redistribute wealth,” when, who knows, maybe next week you’ll win the lotto or finally land that dream job–would you want to have to then give it all up to the Government? You get the idea. Ideology has us very deep in its clutches.

I probably butchered that, but let’s move on to the topic here: videogames, particularly CRPGs. Sellnow argues that pop culture works “reinforce or reject status quo power structures regarding socioeconomic status and materialism as normal and common sense.” Some games, therefore, should be seen as being in harmony with the dominant ideology, reinforcing “wholesome” values such as accruing large amounts of material wealth, demarcating a clear “us and them” (we’re good; they’re bad), and (to borrow a term from Bogost) employing a “procedural rhetoric” that demonstrates the whole process just works. Thus, if you work hard, stay within the offered paradigms, you’ll get lots of great things and rise to the top of the social hierarchy, battling the ingrates at the gate along the way.

This is precisely what happens in almost every CRPG I’ve ever played. It’s all about the loot, baby.

But there are, certainly, striking examples of CRPGs that seem to reject these status quo power structures. The one that springs to my mind is Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV, which introduces the well-known virtues system with procedures for punishing bad behavior. However, interestingly, charity is conspicuously absent from Garriott’s list (though, arguably, “sacrifice” comes close). Instead, Garriott’s virtues seem more in line with those of a good and ideal capitalist, such as Garriott himself. After all, only a few very extreme capitalists would openly admit (or even believe themselves to be) lacking in honesty, compassion, love, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. How many times, for instance, have you heard stories that showed some super-rich person was very humble? 

Another example springs to mind. In Champions of Krynn (and other games like it), certain classes (the Knight of Solamnia) have taken vows of poverty and must give up some of their gold when they enter a town. As I recall, there were ways around this, but here’s a game that I think does reject at least one part of the capitalist ideology–to be the best fighter, you must be generous and not care so much about hoarding money. This is so because the mechanics of the game privilege knights as characters.

Perhaps nothing rankles a well-steeped citizen of a capitalist country more than the idea of a vow of poverty. Why shouldn’t we get to keep what we earn? Why should we be forced to give away our money to lazy bums? But wait–I could use that money more than that stupid starving person. I’m just brainstorming here, mind you.

World of Warcraft introduced a “monk” class in the last expansion, and initially I was very intrigued since this class in other games is usually known for rejecting material weapons and armor in favor of spiritual ones. It would have been interesting to have a class in WOW who could not wear any items or wield any weapons–that would have, essentially, eliminated the need for money and loot. Assuming they also made this character more powerful than any other class, it really would have sent a powerful message to the player base about materialism.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Instead, the monk is just as materialistic as the rest of them. Sad panda.

At any rate, this has gotten me to think about how a CRPG might offer an “oppositional reading” to our cultural ideology, forcing players to think (and enact) alternative ways of life instead of just reinforcing it.








18 thoughts on “A Neo-Marxist Perspective on CRPGs?

  1. Aleksey

    I wrote an article about life within “equality” not so long ago, clicking on my name should reveal it.

    It could make an interesting videogame from a historical standpoint, I suppose, like a point-and-click adventure. The mechanics themselves would be pretty dull and gray, just as real life within such environments has been historically.

    I wouldn’t recommend putting on the red tie, Matt. It is a suffocative hazard.

  2. Nick

    A game where you give all your money and loot to the state instead of keeping it to improve your character..Interesting. Instead of leveling up your character you would be forced at gunpoint to invest them into the country’s latest tyrant, er “benefactor”. My distaste for Communism aside, I do think it’s an interesting idea but I have a feeling it wouldn’t work out that well. What would you improve? Your factory working skills? It would be tough to fight monsters with “State Certified Long Swords”.

  3. Matt Barton Post author

    Well, I guess if you wanted to make it truly oppositional, you wouldn’t “punish” the players like that. Instead, you’d have the game setup to reward the behavior you liked. So, maybe you’d have the option to hide some of the money and not give it to the government. However, that wouldn’t net you as good of an advantage than if you handed it over. Maybe handing it over would reward you with better relations with the townsfolk, better facilities, greater population, etc. I’m just brainstorming here, but it could be done.

    1. Nick

      Maybe something like, you work for the state and receive promotions (level up) which allow you access to better and better state provided items. The more loot you bring in for the country also earns you rewards. That way we still have character progression like other RPGs. Make it an Arcanum-like setting (or whatever) to keep it out of the real world to avoid the stigma associated with real world communism. I’d like to see something like that, I’ve actually been rather bored with typical fantasy RPG’s of late.

      1. Aleksey

        In a Marxist game when you have more than someone else, it gets distributed amongst everyone. I suppose you could make a settlement management sim that way, with people gathering resources which they have to pile up in the settlement.

        Eventually, however, some NPCs should figure out that no matter how much they bring, they’re treated like everyone else, and the overall productivity should grind to a halt. I mean, we are making an authentic experience here, right?

        At that point you should build a jail, and institute punishment squads to jail those who don’t comply to the standard of the collective enlightened ubermensch, and keep the rest of the producers in fear.

        The production will be barely sufficient to sustain life, so then you should start trading your people for bags of crops from the neighboring capitalist country. Make sure to protect your own house and ensure that your own family has everything it needs, and boost up the motivation of the working proles by installing big propaganda banners and cultural brainwashing in your schools.

        1. Matt Barton Post author

          Well, I think that’s where we’ve yet to see anything in real life to equate it to. I don’t know anybody who thinks the Soviets or China has/had a superior system. But what if they had lived up to their own promises and rhetoric? So, as long as you had plenty of food, a nice house, a job you enjoyed, hobbies, etc., would you really take to the streets in rage just because your neighbors all had the same opportunities and resources?

        2. Nick

          Well we do know that higher ranking members of the state have more “equality” than the standard citizen, so if the player character would play a higher up, it could work. All those things you mentioned could be dealt with in the story, and throw in some waring nations story as well.. I think if the story touched on the right subjects it could be an interesting game.

          Aside from the hypothetical game, I agree with everything you said above. I also just read your post on your site about growing up in Soviet Russia and it was a good read. It reminded me that no matter how bad things may look, (Obamacare, growing police state) we still have something special here. I look forward to your next post.

          1. Matt Barton Post author

            Hehe…That reminds me of Orwell’s book Animal Farm. Good read.

            I think you must have me confused with someone else–I didn’t grow up in Soviet Russia! Though I have plenty of friends who did and share their stories with me. I haven’t ever heard any of them say a single positive thing about it, other than a few who said they really had tight bonds with their neighbors.

            In any case, other than Garriott, I’m not aware of a CRPG designer who really focused on promoting good values in players. Instead, it’s almost always focused simply on getting the best stuff as efficiently as possible. I would like to see something like you have in Deus Ex, where you’re rewarded more for a mission if you don’t resort to violence. Seems like we could find a way to better reward players for selfless acts–not accepting a quest reward since it’d deprive the family, etc. Some games will give you an experience bump for this sort of thing, but I don’t think the concept has been fully explored yet.

            In general, I think most of us (well, hopefully SOME of us) would agree that the severe income disparity we see in the US and elsewhere is hardly desirable, nor even sustainable. Communism is obviously not a solution. However, there must be something in-between the two extremes that we could find and promote via good game design.

          2. Nick

            Heh, Matt I was talking about Aleksey, who grew up in Russia. He has a story on his blog that’s worth a read.
            You mentioned Deus Ex which is one of my favorites. I like games that give you an option to be the classic hero with your typical good moral values, etc, but I also like the options to go to morally gray areas or outright “evil”. If RPG’s always gave us those options, it would be another “golden age” of RPGs IMO. We have these great templates with games like Fallout 1 & 2 and Deus Ex, but developers don’t seem to be interested, unfortunately. More Deus Ex all around would be great. We need Warren Spector and Tim Cain to team up and make the ultimate RPG.

            I think until we have something like the Star Trek replicator, no form of Government, whether it be a Libertarian type Govt (I wish), Socialist Govt, or Communism, we won’t achieve the ideal. IMO for the latter to work, we really would need literal Angels in charge for it not to become a corrupted mess.
            Capitalism is the best system we have at this time, it breeds innovation which leads to new technologies which improves the lives of everybody.

            I look around and see where Government manipulates the economy (or anything really) to try to achieve a more “equal or fair” nation and it just ends up making things overly complicated or creates unintended consequences that end up hurting as much as helping. I’m a firm believer that individuals and communities are better at fixing things than the state. I suppose I sort of tune out the suffering of others around the world for the most part, but what could I do to help besides give to charity when possible? Sorry for the rambling mess.

          3. Matt Barton Post author

            I feel the same way about it. It’s just too easy to slip into the “more equal than others” line. I don’t know anyone who fully trusts the US government; I can only imagine how little trust we’d have for a truly socialist government. The corruption, inefficiency–heck, anything done by committee seems destined to fail.

            Maybe those SF authors who write about a computer running the show have the answer. Take it out of our hands (at least as much as possible).

          4. Nick

            It’s such a complicated issue. I think the guys who are inventing new 3D printers have the right idea. Once people can easily create their own things in their own home, including food eventually, things will look much better for everybody. I’m generally excited to see what comes next.

          5. Derrick

            Have you read about Bitcoin?

            I feel like that is relevant to this discussion. If anything its indeed a real world example of ‘a computer running the show’ (well, computers). Bitcoin’s main innovation is an algorithm which can reliably determine ‘truth’ among a network of computers, therefore eliminating the need for any central authority to confirm a transaction. And since the system is open and decentralized, there is no single point of failure and its impossible for any one party to control or overtake.

            A revolution in of itself, for videogames specifically I feel like this technology would be an exciting way to implement an economy. The code is already open source, so developers could very well put the same model in their game with relative ease.

  4. Chris

    Just lost a longtime reader with this crap. Video games are my escape from work, politics, etc. i read your (and other) blog for the same reason.

    Maybe I’m brainwashed (surely your MOST tolerant views MUSTN’T be) because I do highly believe in oersonal responsibility. But you could, perhaps, learn something from the other side. Don’t sit back and whine and complain that others are more “fortunate” (i.e. have more popular blogs). Either give people what they want or be content with what you have. Otherwise, We’ll just vote with our browsers… Like I will do right now.

    1. Jake

      Don’t you think you are overreacting, Chris?

      I will continue enjoying Matt Chat even though our political views aren’t 100% aligned. I never expected them to be! I mean, come on, look at that hair.

  5. James

    Nice piece of Christian rhetoric, Matt.

    I am sure you didn’t think that is what you were writing, but it is what you wrote. Brings the phrase “dominant ideology” to mind…

    Anyway, many CRPGs do suffer from a lack of late-game money sinks; player-characters do end up hoarding ridiculous amounts of money and no interesting gameplay comes of it. I have never found saving up for late-game super items to be very satisfying and vendors never seem exited to have sold something that is probably worth more than the town they live in.

    But, hey, capitalists don’t approve of hoarding (rather than using) money either; perhaps you could have a game where you can invest in local business, rewarding you with better relations with the townsfolk, better facilities, greater population, etc.

    Holy cow! We just arrived at the same idea you did from the opposite position. Maybe game design has nothing to do with political perspectives?

  6. Freeman

    So, there is something in the RPG mindset of accumulating wealth, but if you really look at it, the loot ultimately doesn’t change anything in terms of your influence in the world. In most games it makes you better at doing what you’re doing, but you never really just sit back and become a lord retiring on your ill gotten gains from your alternating careers of graverobber / murder-hobo.

    It doesn’t matter that I have enough wealth to buy and sell the kingdom. I’m never going to get to sit in Lord British’s throne, rule Krynn or anything like that. Ultimately, in a crpg the only thing the wealth really changes is my ability to get wealth.

    I’m trying to think of an example past the Ultima series for that kind of re-enforcement. Most modern games take the ‘make the player feel awesome’ mentality and don’t really push anything like that. Maybe the classic System Shock? Where you start out with this being your fault and you have to undo your mistakes?

    Spec Ops the line I think did a fantastic job of deglamorizing violence and our cultural views of what a shooter/war game should be.

    Love the post, this is why I like your show over others. You get in deeper into what is gaming than just reviews. Keep it up.

  7. DP

    I think it would be really interesting if a game with factions like World of Warcraft used that scenario to simulate disparate political systems and economies. The faction you belong to could tax the gold you earn while adventuring, but provide different types of services in return. Maybe the horde has a very low tax rate, but heavily regulates item prices in the auction house. Maybe the alliance has a high tax rate but drops health and mana potions in your mailbox every week, and sends a new item every time you level up. Players would all have different opinions on the systems, and the economy would be shaped differently in various regions. What would the cost of a potion at a neutral auction house be if some players get 5 free every week?

  8. CdrJameson

    I always thought the money systems in CRPGs was ultimately subversive.

    After all, money pretty quickly becomes worthless as there’s nothing to do with it.


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